Charles F. Hartt, with the city of Recife in the background, during a survey by the Geological Commission of the Empire. Recife, 1875. Photograph by Marc Ferrez / IMS Collection

Even in these difficult times that we live in 2019, São Paulo is full of good and excellent exhibitions – and this year that should never have started is not over yet!

Many individual and group exhibitions that took place in commercial galleries or in alternative spaces presented the most recent production of artists in open activity with quality productions, such as the case of KA'RÃI, by Dora Longo Bahia, recently shown in Galeria Vermelho (and here commented). Already Featuring – set up in a studio in the neighborhood of Santa Cecília –, presented works by Leandro Muniz, Marcelo Pacheco and Thomaz Rosa. No, there was no “main artist” and his guests: the show presented without distinction the productions of these three young painters who one day, for sure, will be talked about. KA'RÃI e Featuring are two shows that give a good measure of the potency and potential of the art produced in the city.

However, as the São Paulo environment does not only live on individual and collective exhibitions showing recent works by local artists, there were numerous exhibitions that took place (or take place) this year in São Paulo with the aim of presenting abstracts, anthologies or retrospectives of renowned artists.

If some left something to be desired (such as Tarsila's retrospective at MASP, here also commented), others managed the feat of bringing to the city’s public gems and little-known aspects of great names in the art produced in Brazil and in other countries. Within this more restricted universe of retrospective exhibitions, I would dare to say that two of the most important ones to date were, without a doubt, those dedicated to Marc Ferrez (Marc Ferrez: Territory and Image, on display at Instituto Moreira Salles, between March and July) and Man Ray in Paris (until the end of October, at the Centro Cultural Banco do Brasil). Both presented their artists with what was considered the best of their productions.

However, there is a difference between the two shows: if in Marc Ferrez: Territory and Image the objective was to review the photographer's path (Rio de Janeiro, 1843-1923) in the context of Brazil's transformation, from the end of the Second Empire to the consolidation of the Old Republic, Man Ray in Paris, in turn, focuses on demonstrating the exceptionality of the North American artist (1890-1976), during the periods he spent in the French capital (1921-1940 and 1951/1976).

Concerned with understanding the transformations that took place across the country in those crucial decades of Brazilian history, the curator of the exhibition Marc Ferrez: Territory and Image, Sergio Burgi, focused his interest on the work carried out by Ferrez and his team with various governmental or private ventures, linked to a more meticulous knowledge of the Brazilian territory, and the expansion of the country's rail network.

In parallel to this objective, Burgi was also interested in investigating Ferrez's adherence to the development of photography in that period, in order to meet the demands of his attributions as official photographer of the various trips he made across the country, documenting those undertakings.

To translate these questions to the IMS audience, the curatorship used not only the collection of works by Marc Ferrez, belonging to the Institute, but also works by the photographer, belonging to the collection of the Getty Museum, as well as cameras and other photographic equipment. period, autograph documents, printed documents and a series of other objects that gave the exact measure of Marc Ferrez's commitment to the transformations of photography and the increasing importance it assumed in a society in continuous mutation.

As a result of all this effort to think about Ferrez's photography within the broader context of the transformations that the country was going through at that time, and also of the changes in photography itself, Marc Ferrez: Territory and Image became one of the most dynamic exhibitions presented in São Paulo this year, taking the Institute's audience to a deep immersion, both in Ferrez's production and in the history of photography, as well as in the country's own history.

already the curator of Man Ray in Paris, Emmanuelle de L'Ecotais, seems to have aimed to demonstrate how Man Ray can and should be recognized as one of the main artists of the first half of the last century, linked to experimentation in the field of photography and cinema. However, this strongly empirical dimension of the artist's production (which, in a contradictory way, did not remove the premeditated character of many of his productions), did not correspond to a curator whose motto was also experimentation. On the contrary: Man Ray in Paris stands out for an expography that has discretion as the main characteristic used, certainly, to enhance the stupendous photographs vintage that make up most of the pieces presented there.

I believe I can say that the exhibition transfers to the exhibition spaces where most of his works are displayed the singular sophistication that emanates from the precious images of the North American artist. The spaces were designed so that the visitor could focus on the universe of Man Ray, from the careful visualization of each of the photographs, thought of as if they were unique objects.

Which is not the case.

As we know, photography has, perhaps as its main characteristic, the possibility of multiplication. It is not unique like painting and it is precisely in its ability to transcend uniqueness that its greatest power resides. And Man Ray seemed to know that and also seemed to know how it was possible to make his production travel through several paths, reaching an immense number of people, a fact impossible if each of the images he created remained unique. That is why the artist did not produce the portraits he produced (or any other type of photography) to remain untouched as unique – or almost unique – specimens in private collections. In fact, images of him even circulated in fashion-related publications – Spindrift and other elite magazines – as well as in surrealist avant-garde magazines; and it is in this transit that, in fact, all his interest in the experimental dimension of the production he carried out seems to reside, experimentalism that, as mentioned, contradictorily, in many cases did not exclude calculation and a visual culture closely linked to the tradition of painting, say. But in Man Ray in Paris this importance of the artist's contribution to the transformation of the very concepts of art and the artist lies confined only in one or another wall text (and in some final rooms of the show).

The universe from which the works that make up the Man Ray in Paris is a French private collection acquired directly from the artist, according to the person in charge of the exhibition's production. This fact, in my opinion, may help to explain the excellent state of conservation of the works exhibited and the extreme quality of the vast majority of them. There in the show there is the eye of a photography lover who always perceived it as part of the Fine Arts universe and, therefore, far from the more brutal reality of the mass media through which most of those images traveled.

It would have been productive if the public attentive to art and photography could compare those vintage so precious with the pages of Spindrift or Surrealist Revolution, for example, but this was not the scope of the show. Man Ray in Paris preferred to remain within the more traditional conceptions of “work of art”, of “artist as genius” and, consequently, of a curatorial practice also duly consecrated. This fact absolutely does not detract from the importance of the exhibition, much less its place among the main shows presented in São Paulo this year.

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